How Mario Got His Mustache

Super Mario Bros. is one of the most successful video game franchises of all time. For people of a certain age, Mario and other Nintendo characters are better known than old-school cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny. But the interesting thing about Mario is that he didn’t just jump out of a pipe one day. He evolved through a series of fortuitous accidents. Let’s take a look at what happened.

Super Mario Evolution

Popeye to Jumpman

It started with Popeye the Sailor Man. Or rather, without him. Back in the Golden Age of Arcade Games, an upstart Nintendo wanted to create a game based on the famous comic strip “Popeye”. But licensing agreements turned out to be more difficult than they thought, and they had to invent new characters for the game. Hence Bluto, the burly bad guy, became Donkey Kong while and Popeye became a nondescript hero known as Jumpman.

Jumpman to Mario

Video games in the early 1980s had very crude graphics, so early games favored function over form. (After all, Pac Man is just a yellow circle with a wedge-shaped mouth.) For a human character such as Jumpman, it was hard to animate hair, so they gave him a hat. It was hard to do a realistic mouth, so he got a bushy mustache. And it was difficult to distinguish his arms from his torso, so he got overalls. This was the character sent from Japan to America. The American developers in Seattle thought that Jumpman looked a lot like their office landlord, an Italian American named Mario Segale. Soon the name stuck, and a modern icon was born.

Mario to Luigi

Nintendo wanted to make a two-player game, but there was no room in the code to animate a second character. So instead they simply did a palette-swap, changing Jumpman’s red clothes to green. The American developers, after making their main character Italian, realized that his brother needed an Italian name as well. So they named him after a local Italian restaurant, creating the perennial sidekick known as Luigi.

Distinct Characters

Luigi was originally just a green version of his brother, but he soon became a character in his own right. Once again, the change came from another franchise, a Japanese game called Doki Doki Panic. This game featured a family of four wandering around the desert. Nintendo adapted it into Super Mario Bros. 2 for the American market. This adaptation mostly involved changing the graphics to show the existing Super Mario Bros. characters. But unlike the early games, the Doki Doki Panic characters had different looks and different abilities. This meant that the adapted Luigi character was taller than the adapted Mario. And the adapted Luigi had different abilities, jumping higher but landing less exactly. These traits were soon integrated into his character, and ever since, Mario and Luigi have been different characters, not just the same Jumpman in different clothes.

With dozens of video games over four decades, spin-off cartoons and toys and a horrid movie adaptation, the Mario series is steeped in mythology. But a lot of it comes back to the basic technology. If it weren’t for a few fortunate accidents over the years, Mario and Luigi wouldn’t even exist.

Steve Lovelace

Steve Lovelace is a writer and graphic artist. After graduating Michigan State University in 2004, he taught Spanish in Samoa before moving to Dallas, Texas. He blogs regularly at

You may also like...

4 Responses

  1. March 8, 2013

    […] on my iPhone screen resembled the floating platforms and jump boxes you find in platform games like “Super Mario Bros”. So I booted up my Photoshop and the Mario iPhone was born. The hardest part was rendering the […]

  2. June 16, 2015

    […] meeting people and shopping for geeky items. I also got to meet Charles Martinet, the voice of Mario, as well as one of my favorite sci-fi authors, Kevin J. Anderson. I even got a to take a break and […]

  3. August 2, 2016

    […] iOS Springboard reimagined as a level from the original Super Mario Bros. […]

  4. April 8, 2017

    […] of 8-bit pixel graphics, I don’t spend a lot of time playing games. While I grew up playing Super Mario Bros. and rudimentary MS-DOS games, I never got into first person shooters like Doom or Duke Nukem. And […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.